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Dolphin Tale: A “True” Inspirational Story

By Tiffiny Whitney · September 26, 2011

Almost 20 years later, the same studio that brought us the heartwarming (and slightly irritating) tale of Free Willy is at it again, but this time, with dolphins in the newly released Dolphin Tale. The story follows a young, anti-social boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) who finds meaning in life by becoming involved in the rehabilitation efforts of a rescued (and tail-less) dolphin named Winter at a local aquarium.   When it seems that Sawyer is finally engaged and growing in life, crisis hits when a real estate tycoon tries to buy the site of the aquarium as hotel beachfront property.  Additionally, musculoskeletal issues develop for Winter due to the unusual way her injury causes her to move, actually impacting her ability to live.  At this point, it’s up to Sawyer and his little friend Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) to not only find a way to save the aquarium, but also Winter’s life.

I don’t think it’s spoiling much to admit right here that Dolphin Tale is about 98% fictionalized, and its tag of being “inspired by” true events is accurate.  It’s inspired, but very clearly removed from the reality of what actually happened.  Yes—the dolphin was saved by an aquarium, and her tail was amputated due to injuries caused by becoming entangled in a manmade crab trap.  The dolphin actually had to learn to swim with a prosthetic replacement, and this is a big part of the film.  That’s all real…

But… Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) as the hot marine animal activist and Lorraine Nelson (Ashley Judd) as Sawyer’s gorgeous and oddly complicit mom participating in the delinquency of her minor child, the dolphin’s weird attachment to a young boy, and that boy’s subsequent attempts to save an aquarium from a multi-million dollar corporation though?  All fabricated for dramatic effect.

And that’s actually not such a bad thing.  Viewers of this film need to know up front that it was written as a family show, and the ex-machina resolution is pretty unbelievable.  That being said, Dolphin Tale teaches writers a valuable lesson—to know your audience, especially if you’re trying to get a movie made.  In the case of Dolphin Tale, it seems like the writers wanted to bring to light the threats that face wildlife due to the activities of humans—but they weren’t going to be able to do it on a wide scale because the 2% of the population that actually watches documentaries don’t spend as much money on one trip to the movies as a family of four trying to find something to keep their kids occupied.  And since “drama” makes movies, and movies don’t get made unless a studio thinks they’re “dramatic enough” to make money, Dolphin Tale dumped the “reality” in favor of the more “dramatic” Flipper effect by making a kid the protagonist in a David vs. Goliath story with marine mammals.  

And, even though it might hurt your pride—an important lesson apparently is that sometimes, you have to pander to the kids to get the attention of their parents.   Does the pandering make it sappy?  Yes.  It’s a kids’ movie.  Without delving too much into spoilers, the film is written to be very family-oriented, and as such, feels slightly contrived.  In the three month period the film spans, this depressed and awkward pre-teen becomes a knowledgeable and bubbly boy with the social and marketing skills to take on a multi-million dollar corporation.   Um…yeah…

That is not to say that Dolphin Tale isn’t without its merits though, or fails to make its points about what the writer feels is the responsibility of humans towards the animal world.  Additionally, from a writer’s perspective, there is an attempt here to make the story somewhat character driven, through Sawyer’s mental and emotional journey and change.  Overall though, we’re talking very “soft” and flat characters.  But really…this movie is actually about the dolphin.

Additionally, aside from bringing awareness to people of all generations about the very real problems of animal life being threatened by human activity, Dolphin Tale certainly is a coherent and moving story that intertwines aspects of the actual Winter story with fictional (though exaggerated) representations of its real-life counterparts.  For example, the real Winter is actually used by the aquarium she lives at to inspire wounded military vets and amputee-children to persist and live against adversity through the problems brought by their physical limitations.  In the film, this connection is embodied by the relationship Winter develops with Sawyer’s disabled vet cousin, who finds strength in meeting Winter to battle his own recent war-caused disabilities. 

Maybe the biggest reason to see the film?  Look beyond the sappy plot and flat characters, and you’ll see an amazing performance by Winter herself—the actual dolphin.  Yep—the use of the dolphin the film is based on reinstates the film’s credibility almost instantly, because the animal itself makes up for the relatively flat and formulaic plot because Winter’s will to survive is inspiring and interesting all on its own.  And she’s cute.

Is Dolphin Tale a worthwhile way to spend your afternoon at the movies?  For both kids and parents—I’d say yes.  This is a great family film.  And, as a screenwriter, you’ll learn by watching it just how important it is to understand your audience.  Even if you’re an adult and interested in the amazing story of a dolphin’s will to survive—it’s actually pretty incredible.  You won’t be blown away by the story, but you might (most probably) be blown away by the dolphin.